As we know, the 1927 silent film, Hats Off! is the Holy Grail of Laurel and Hardy films, being the only production (that we know of) of which no footage has survived. In fact, following the discovery of the whole second reel of the whole second reel of The Battle of the Century in 2015, we are very fortunate indeed to have access to the vast majority, if not all, of the released footage of every other film the boys made together.
An earlier article on Hats Off! which includes a gallery of photographs taken at the time the movie was filmed can be found here and what follows is with grateful thanks to Willie McIntyre, webmeister of https://www.bowlerdessert.com/ and its earlier, printed edition, Bowler Dessert.
The film Hats Off! was essentially ‘remade’ as Academy Award winning The Music Box in the same location just over four years later, but is very different in so many ways, not the least of which is it was a washing machine rather than a piano that our hapless duo had to get to the top of the 131 steps between 923 and 925 Vendome Street in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles.
Old files and early reviews tell us that Hats Off! wasn’t just an experiment from the early days of Laurel and Hardy, but a film that played a key role in the evolution of their looks, characteristics and style. In the 1980’s, BLOTTO magazine tracked down the Dutch titles of the two-reeler in the archives of the Department of Culture, and published the complete list, together with a survey of what has been learned about the film so far from other sources.
It seems that the Dutch version was publicised – and released – as A Child Can Do The Laundry, and H. Tijmstra who compiled an article in BLOTTO #9 at the time, speculates that the version may have differed from that released elsewhere. Certainly, some of the subtitles seem to ‘benefit’ from the oft used phrase ‘Lost in Translation’ and a twist was needed to them as will be seen in what follows.
We noted that there doesn’t seem to have been any titles attaching to the first, ‘apartment block’ sequence, or to the closing ‘hats off’ scenes. However, rather than the Dutch version lacking these, this was more likely down to the original film not having title cards during these two action-heavy sequences.
Bowler Dessert Revisited
‘Bowler Dessert’ was for many years a quarterly and then six-monthly magazine which ran until late 2012, in tandem for almost thirteen years with https://www.bowlerdessert.com/ which went online in April 1999. There is so much good stuff that went in the magazine over the years, it would be such a shame if it wasn’t to be seen by this and later generations of Sons. So in this, we focus on Hats Off! and revisit the Tijmstra article which was translated by Robert Noks and originally appeared in Bowler Dessert #33 in the spring of 1989. We’ve added some still photographs where appropriate though, to hopefully enhance what is already a fascinating piece.
The article has been reproduced verbatim, so as you might expect, it contains a few bits that given time, we now know otherwise (further info is annotated). Additionally, in translation, some of the grammar is a little off the mark, but this is very interesting indeed and is certainly worth viewing again. Other Laurel and Hardy films and supporting cast mentioned have links to their pages on the main website; please click on these if you wish to visit them.
Bowler Dessert #33: Spring 1989
If one inquires of outsiders in the early and recent filmworld how it’s possible that a successful farce like HATS OFF, of which hundreds of copies must have been spread over the globe disappeared without a trace, one regularly gets the answer: It’s much more astonishing that only a few of the hundreds of Hal Roach productions are missing! As far as Laurel and Hardy are concerned these are, besides HATS OFF, just some fragments from the first act of THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY (the missing ROGUE SONG being an MGM production).1
Anyway, missing means that unique negative material has been lost forever, because it should be kept in a studio vault under optimal conditions and it wasn’t. After sixty years the chance of survival of the negative is nil. But there is always the possibility that duplicate negatives were made for foreign countries to enable licensees or branches of MGM (who took care of the distribution of the Hal Roach films) to make their own positives with titles in the vernacular language. It seems incredible that all the negatives and the hundreds of positive copies have disappeared completely from the face of the earth since 1929.2
Although the projection copies had to be destroyed after termination of the contracts, it’s a well known fact that this was stomped on a large scale. So, there is every reason for not giving up hope; we have to collect and publish as accurately as possible data on HATS OFF, in the hope that a small light will start to burn.3
The title “Hats Off” refers to the final scene in which a fight between Stan and Ollie spreads to a crowd of flocked passers-by who knock each other’s’ hats off. It’s the first wholesale destruction in a Laurel and Hardy film, with worthy successors as the pie fight in THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY and the pulling off of pants in YOU’RE DARN TOOTIN’. What’s more, HATS OFF contains the first version of the MUSIC BOX theme. Instead of a piano, a washing machine is carried up and down the stairs. Prior to these two principle scenes of the film is a scene in which the Boys meet James Finlayson as the dealer in washing machines.4
Stan and Ollie have lost their jobs as dishwashers and pass Finlayson’s shop; outside is a Kwickway washing machine. On top of the machine is a sign that asks for a salesman. The Boys are hired. They have to show the product door-to-door to housewives. Before the washing machine is on their truck, Finlayson has been underneath it several times. After futile and tiring attempts at an apartment complex, an opportunity seems to present itself as they drive their truck past a stair. At the top they see Anita Garvin, waving and shouting.
When Stan and Ollie, after endless bother, reach the top with the washing machine, Anita asks if they will mail a letter for her. To Ollie’s question as to whether she would be interested in “the world’s most synchronisical” washing machine, she answers that she has her own Chinaman. The retreat begins and halfway on the stairs is the first of three hat-changes of which the last concludes the film.
Once downstairs, the Boys hear Anita calling again. Ollie suggests that maybe the Chinaman has some trouble with his back and sends Stan upstairs. It appears that Anita has forgotten something. Stan motions for Ollie and when he finally gets upstairs with the machine, puffing and panting, there develops a small hand-to-hand fight as soon as he hears that he’s got the letter in his pocket and that it hasn’t been stamped yet.
Together they bring the washing machine down again, but there is a diversion in the form of a young lady (Dorothy Coburn) who shows a pretty leg. Besides, she wants a demonstration, but she lives upstairs. When Stan hears that he kicks her in the rear, this incident leads to the hat-fight in which many others are mixed up, including Finlayson. A steamroller crushes the washing machine and after the police have arrived. Stan and Ollie remain behind in a sea of half-destroyed hats.
THICK AND THIN
The above summary is taken from the story as given by John McCabe in LAUREL AND HARDY, the book of McCabe, Kilgore and Bann (unfortunately sold out).5 Since McCabe didn’t have the film itself, but had only written sources at his disposal, it mainly depends on the nature of the used document whether or not his version exactly corresponds with the film. If a script was used which was written before the shooting, there is a substantial chance of diversion. Divergences are practically out of the question if he started from the “cutting continuity” that was made after the final editing. The fact that McCabe. among other things, also gives the opening title, points in the direction of such an accurate transcription of the film.
Assuming that McCabe had this at his disposal, there are at least two, not easily explainable, differences in the Dutch translation of the titles, as they were approved in March 1928 (without changes) by the Central Board of Film Censors in The Hague. McCabe gives as the opening title: “The story or two boys who figure that the world owes them a living – but is about thirty-five years behind in the payments”.
This is not so difficult to translate. However, the Dutch list gives two completely different titles. The first one (“This is the veritable story of two young men who were quite willing to work, but could not find a job although they did their utmost”) hasn’t a very acute text and there isn’t a sensible thing to say about it, but the second one (“They were sworn friends – together. They only had one pocket – but unfortunately always empty!”) surely is on original Laurel and Hardy text by editor H.M. Walker. It’s strange and inexplicable that it only appears (in the films known to us) in 1931 as the opening title of LAUGHING GRAVY): “Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy stuck together through thick and thin – one pocketbook between them – always empty.”
The second difference concerns the first images of the sequence. In McCabe’s version the film starts with Finlayson’s shop and the announcement that Stan and Ollie have lost their jobs as dishwashers. The conclusion one could draw from the Dutch [sub]titles 1 to 5 is that there have been one or more scenes about the way in which this has happened. Other differences can be explained on the grounds of untranslatable expressions.
From the report of the Central Board of Censors it appears that this two-reeler of 610 metres was passed without cuts and that three approvals were given on March 28th 1928 for three Dutch copies that were issued by Wilton-Metro-Goldwyn Distr. Corp. in Amsterdam. As a synopsis the Board issued the following text: “The very comic adventures of the two unemployed who, on behalf of a dealer in modern washing machines, try to sell his newest product and get into all kinds of complications. At the end there is a free fight, in which one tries to knock the other’s hat off.”
HATS OFF was shot in July/August 1927. The staircase was (and is) in Vendome Street, Los Angeles. Three years later on exactly the same location.6 THE MUSIC BOX was shot, with the piano instead of the washing machine and Billy Gilbert instead of Dorothy Coburn as the diversion on the staircase. The hat scene at the end was shot in Main Street, Culver City.
The director was Hal Yates, who worked under the supervision of Leo McCarey.7 It was McCarey who, earlier that year, consciously began to make for the establishment of a coherent, permanent pattern of behaviour for the duo, initially against the will of Stan Laurel, but to the enormous delight of Oliver Hardy. It’s clear that HATS OFF, although not the first successful attempt, was the most complete elaboration of the complimentary characters of Stan and Ollie in that first period.
It was for the first time since DO DETECTIVES THINK? that the bowler hats and the crumpled, but still presentable, suits were put on. Randy Skretvedt reports in his book that Stan’s upright hair was shown here for the first time in full glory: “Stan and Babe’s hair was still growing in, having been shorn for THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS; one day Stan tried to brush his hair back, but it stubbornly refused to lay down. People on the lot began doubling over, with laughter at his appearance which Stan, naturally, took as a compliment”.
According to Randy the idea of the washing machine came from Laurel, whose wife Lois had had a salesman at the door who absolutely wanted to give o demonstration. One of the gagmen at Hal Roach had discovered the stairs.8 The battle with the hats was brought in by Leo McCarey who had gone through similar escalation at a party where Mabel Normand started things off by untying his bow-tie.
The film was shown in the Los Angeles area only at the beginning of March 1928, some weeks before HATS OFF was passed by the Board in The Hague. It’s not clear why this two-reeler lay on the shelf for about half a year. Skretvedt thinks that Hal Roach possibly realised that he had something special in his hands and wanted to prepare for the premiere at the Metropolitan Theatre very carefully. A large-scale publicity campaign was set up with billboards, balloons and advertisements that were coupled to such products as coffee and soft drinks.
In the US the previews were generally praising. A publicity man at Hal Roach’s issued the following message: “Roach shook each solemnly by the hand and told them that they had better get along personally from now on because they were to work together forever…”
1: We now believe that the majority of every release that Laurel and Hardy delivered through Hal Roach has now been found – with the exception of Hats Off!.
2: When you think about it, it is indeed amazing that of the hundreds of prints of this circa 20-minute comedy that were likely to have been made, not one second of footage appears to have survived.
3: The re-emergence, in 2015, of the full second reel of The Battle of the Century confirms this!
4: In the original article, there is a low-grade reproduction of part of the material released to distributors with notes to accompany stills etc and a ‘title’ “A Child Can Do the Laundry” which we’ve reproduced here.
The title ‘A Child Can Do the Laundry‘ is a Dutch expression, like ‘It’s a cinch’. This was the translator’s solution for the problem caused by Anita Garvin’s remark that she had her own Chinaman: Chinese laundries were unknown in the Netherlands.
5: ‘Sold out’ probably means ‘Out of print’ though used copies are available on the likes of Ebay for around the £20 mark – which in our opinion represents a real bargain! Prior to Randy Skretvedt’s incredible Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies, this was the definitive book on The boys and is still a worthy addition to any collection.
6: The Music Box was filmed between 7th and 17th December 1931, which was more than four years later than the Hats Off! crew were at the steps; from 9th-19th August 1927.
7: Leo McCarey would go on to win Academy Awards for best director of The Awful Truth (Starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne) and for both best director and the original story for Bing Crosby vehicle Going My Way.
8: Being based in the North East of England, the Beau Chumps tent rather like and, erm perpetuate, the rumour (hoping that there is at least a modicum of truth in it) that Stan got the idea for Hats Off! and The Music Box from the many sets of steep stone steps (four of which still exist) that his young self will have climbed regularly from the North Shields Fish Quay to the Jefferson home in Dockwray Square.
So, was the Dutch version edited differently? Did it follow a different script, or was it just some of the title cards that differed? If the latter, was it as simple case of the previously mentioned ‘lost in translation’?
In order to further consider potential differences between the general release and the Dutch version, here we replay the full set of titles and subtitles from the Dutch release which are numbered and also those from Randy’s cutting script (italicised) from ‘Magic’ (pages 92-98). Where there is no italicised alterative noted, as we’ve had no access to the actual script, we’ve assumed that there would have been an original English title with equivalent words. (well, why would there be a Dutch subtitle if there was nothing onscreen to translate? – if you see what we mean!).
If you’d like to know the whole plot, there are several creditable reconstructions that can be found on YouTube: And of course, there’s always Randy’s book which goes into astonishing detail!
1: Sole Right of representation; Wilton-Metro-Goldwyn Distribution Corporation (this would be unique to the Dutch version; confirming the distributor in the Netherlands)
1a: “This is the veritable story of two young men who were quite willing to work, but could not find a job although they did their utmost” (The story of two boys who figure the world owes them a living – but is around thirty-five years behind in the payments)
2 “They were sworn friends – together. They only had one pocket – but unfortunately always empty!”
3: (text on sign) “Wanted Two Dishwashers”
4: Both having just been fired, Stan is ready to put a brick through their ex-employer’s window. Ollie to Stan: “Control yourself a little! -Keep your wild Corsican blood under control” (Curb your terrible passion! Control your wild Corsican Blood)
5: “If you break that window, they will put you in jail! –What will become of me then?” (Break the glass an’ you’ll go to jail! –Then what will become o’ me?)
6: At the Kwickway shop, text on sign: “Wanted: Clever salesmen to sell a new model washing machine” (Snappy Salesmen Wanted to Sell Kwickway Washers…)
7: What exactly does it say?
8: Stan soaks proprietor Fin. Ollie: “Don’t take it ill of us mister employer! -My secretary and myself had decided to accept this position!” (We’re sorry boss — My secretary and will accept this position)
9: Fin to Stan and Ollie: “Be careful please! –That washing machine has a value of 175 dollars!”
10: “Come on up here”. Fin “I warn you again, be careful with that washing machine” (I warn you again, be careful)
11: Anita at the top of the steps: “Come on up here!” (Come up here)
12: Ollie’s hat falls off. Ollie to Stan “You, get my hat!” (Go get it)
13: Stan’s reply: “You know, -I have a weak heart!” (The slightest exertion, and everything goes blank with me)
14: Anita: “Will you mail this letter for me?” (Will you mail this letter?)
15: Ollie: “Would you be interested in a new kind of washing machine? It’s a great invention: A child can do the Laundry!” (Would you be interested in a new kind of washing machine?)
16: Anita replies: “No thanks, I have no children” (I would not — I have my own Chinese)
17: End of First Act
18: A Child Can Do The Laundry! : Second Act
19: Anita yells to them again: Ollie to Stan: “Maybe she’s had a child in the meantime and wants to have the washing Machine anyhow! –You go up and see what she wants.” (Maybe the Chinaman sprained his back – You go up an’ see)
20: Anita to Stan: “I forgot to put a stamp on my letter!” (I forgot to put a stamp on my letter)
21: Ollie: “Isn’t he a wonderful guy! -I’ll bet he sold it!”
22: Stan to Anita: “Now he is taking the washing machine up again! -Have you ever seen such a goose.” (He’s bringing the washer – imagine a man being that dumb)
23: Anita to Stan: “Maybe he will give a demonstration in the way!” (I wouldn’t be surprised if he stopped to demonstrate)
24: “Undoubtedly it’s a strong make”!
25: Stan to Ollie: “She forgot the stamp – and you’ve got the letter!” (She forgot the stamp – and you’ve got the letter)
26: Ollie knocks Stans Hat off. Anita Exclaims: “You’re the type of selfish man! -you only think of yourself!” (You’re the kind of man that always thinks of himself first!)
27: Stan, carrying it back down: “I’m really beginning to get attached to this thing!” (I’m growing fond of this thing)
28: Stan: “It could have been worse!” (It might be worse)
29: Ollie: “Sure, imagine if we had to sell trucks!” (Yes, we might be selling tractors.)
30: Dorothy Coburn appears at the bottom: “I would like to see a demonstration of this machine!” (I would love to have a demonstration)
31 Ollie: “Where do you live?” (Where do you live?) She points to the top of the steps
32: Stan Kicks her in the rear. Ollie: “I suppose I was selfish again?” (Thinking of myself again)
Stan and Ollie reach an intersection, mix up their hats, fight and Fin, understandably concerned about his machine, tries to intervene. Perhaps inevitably, a steamroller squashes the washing machine.
33: Passer-by to Fin “I saw everything, -it was all your fault!” (I saw the whole thing –it was all your fault!) Fin knocks his hat off.
34: Second passer-by “I saw everything!” (I saw everything!)
A free-for-all ensues and the cops haul everyone away except for Stan and Ollie who are sat in the middle of the street. They exchange hats…again.
35 The End
As noted above, the Dutch subtitles don’t seem to cover any part of the second sequence which is set in an apartment block and involves confusion around which door to sell to first. This sequence was almost certainly very visual – one door opens and another shuts – so few, if any, title cards would be needed. We also assume that there was little dialogue around the ‘hats off’ sequence at the end of the movie. In considering the titles mentioned in Randy’s breakdown of the cutting script, this would indeed appear to be the case.
So, comparing the respective titles, there seems very little difference in them, so logically, the action is probably very similar if not identical. While this is an inyeresting spot by Messrs Tijmstra and Noks, it seems fairly conclusive that the differing subtitles were down to a complete lack of Chinese Laundries in the Netherlands, and of course, down to English being translated to Dutch and then translated back again many years later. The translation of the translations, if you will!
This is “all well and good” I hear you say, but we still don’t have an extant version of Hats Off! Though I wish that were not the case, all I can add here is we should continue to live in hope. You see, dear reader, the finding of a lost film is not without precedent as Randy confirms:
“Since 1974, a number of Laurel and Hardy films thought irretrievably lost have resurfaced: Duck Soup, Why Girls Love Sailors, one reel of Now I’ll Tell One, most of The Battle of the Century, seven Spanish Language films plus one in French and one in German, fragments of the Rogue Song plus its trailer and the complete soundtrack, original soundtrack discs for some late silents and early talkies, a longer cut of Pardon Us, long missing footage from Pack Up Your Troubles, the colour film The Tree in a Test Tube and even an odd short in which the boys and Fin promote MGM’s features for the coming season. A single surviving nitrate print of this film had been hiding in a barn in France for 60 years before its discovery.”
“Finding a print of Hats Off! at this late date? Well, as Mr Laurel says to Mr Hardy in Going Bye-Bye – ‘It could happen’.”
One final thought: The Dutch subtitles mention the washing machine’s value at $175. Some high-end machine that must have been. It’s equivalent value in 2020 would be around £1,489!
Thanks for reading and we hope you enjoyed this brief look at an ‘alternative’ Hats Off! even though we have nothing to alternate it with! If you have any thoughts, please don’t hesitate to leave them in the reply / comments box below. We’d love to hear from you and you will receive a response.